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Online Training for the Online Instructor

By Katura M. Lesane / November 2013

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Online learning programs have become a prevalent aspect of the learning and education community. Schools across the world are making learning accessible; the door is open for students in a myriad of fields to access knowledge that will make them more effective and marketable in their careers. With this rapidly growing trend in education comes an increased need for highly qualified and trained instructors who are able to address students' needs in a non-traditional forum. An instructor in Atlanta, GA can facilitate learning for a teacher in Thailand working to earn her master's degree. A business student in California can receive instruction from a lecturer in Illinois who has a wealth of experience and knowledge in marketing. The world of online education is definitely not flat; the opportunities are limitless. And with this global online community comes a need for knowledgeable, and trained educators to facilitate learning and to add to the quality of online instruction. Just as K-12 teachers experience teacher preparation programs and new teacher orientation programs, online instructors need ongoing training and support to be effective. What does that training look like for the online instructor and for the colleges and universities responsible for ensuring that their clients receive effective education from qualified professors?

Before: Initial Training

Colleges and universities with online learning communities must prepare faculty to be effective in the online environment. This goes beyond simply ensuring faculty understand the mechanics of the online system or program used. Ensuring online instructor effectiveness includes training on how to translate on-ground teaching strategies to online teaching success. What do effective delivery methods look like in the online learning environment? How can the instructor incorporate Web 2.0 tools to diversify the learning environment to include methods that will address all learning types? In addition to effective teaching methods, initial training for online instructors must include strategies on how to connect with learners since the primary mode of communication is not a traditional, face-to-face conversation. How do teachers build connections with students through text? What strategies should be employed to provide support to learners when eye-to-eye and real-time contact are not the primary mode of communication?

The questions to be addressed in the first stage of training—issues of instruction and relationship building with students—must include more than webinars as part of the weekly training sessions. The work of Joyce and Showers points out that learners tend to transfer 90 percent of what they experience in training sessions when there is a focus on demonstration, feedback, mentoring, and coaching [1]. This means initial training for online instructors does not simply include sterile learning environments where educators are simply receptors of information. From the very beginning, online instructors should be assigned a mentor who is a successful online instructor in the school's program. This experienced instructor can be a model and a source of support for the novice instructor. There must be a focus on taking training from lower levels of Bloom's Taxonomy (remembering and understanding) to higher levels (analyzing and evaluating), which starts with having the novice instructor monitor the experienced instructor's course to observe best practices in a real-world setting. The inclusion of a mentor will take online educator effectiveness to new heights because of effective modeling, relationship building, and support that will add consistency to the school's online program.

During: Ongoing Training

Professional learning communities (PLCs) can benefit the online environment, where there is a tendency for instructor isolation. PLCs focus on establishing ongoing cadres that sustain work environments and help avoid teacher burnout [2]. Included in PLCs is a focus on professional development and collaboration. Teachers work together to learn, to grow, and to support one another. The collaborative nature of PLCs provides educators with a forum to hone their skills while working smarter and not harder. This is a concept that cannot be lost to online learning programs where all too often instructors work in isolation.

What do PLCs look like in the online learning environment? First, schools must establish cadres, typically by department, where instructors receive ongoing professional development. This professional development can occur in the form of webinars to unite departments, ensure a common language is spoken, and make faculty aware of best practices in their field. Additionally, these communities must include a focus on collaboration. One solution is to pair faculty who teach similar courses; the end goal is to share ideas, research, and knowledge to enhance students' learning environments. This can occur in dedicated online spaces, similar to social media, for staff to share ideas, research, and to ask questions. The online PLC can help establish fidelity and efficacy for faculty and for the students they serve. Because of their ongoing nature, these communities help expand the body of knowledge for each faculty member and serve as a springboard to increase opportunities to improve the program and to enhance student-learning opportunities.

After: Ongoing Feedback and Assessment

After online instructors have been trained and have participated in ongoing learning communities, they must be a part of ongoing feedback and assessment. This becomes a cyclical process of training, teaching, mentoring, support, feedback, and assessment. A part of the feedback and assessment process should include instructor opportunities for reflection. Schon stresses reflection encourages analysis, which can lead to growth and transformation [3]. We look at where we are, where we are trying to go, and what we can do to get there. In addition to self-reflection, there should be opportunities for peer reflection. This is supported by PLCs where educators observe each other and provide constructive feedback on areas of strength and opportunities for growth. The acts of reflecting and observing others are higher order thinking processes, which transform one's knowledge and understanding to transference and application.

In addition to self-reflection and peer review, ongoing assessment of online instructors should include formative feedback from an instructional specialist who has access to the instructor's course. This feedback should be real time and should follow the rubric for summative evaluations. When positive behaviors are observed in the classroom, instructors should be immediately notified to maintain use of practices throughout the course and in future courses. When areas of growth are noticed, those should also be mentioned in real time so that correction is made and not carried over throughout the course. Formative feedback in real time allows instructors opportunities to grow and make immediate changes that impact teaching and learning. They also allow instructors the best opportunity for success prior to any summative evaluation.

Finally, instructors should receive summative evaluations that mirror the goals and mission of the school's program. Have instructors encouraged critical thinking? Have they built relationships? Have they set a standard for high expectations? The evaluation rubric should be shared with instructors before use and reviewed after submission. And while online forums of communication are primarily used in online learning communities, there must be a focus on real-time communication with instructions about feedback and evaluation of their work. This may include using technology such as Skype or using the telephone as a mode of communication.


The business of training and ensuring online instructors are prepared for the online environment is not one-stop shopping. It is not a single effort by school administration, but an ongoing process that includes use of initial training of instructional best practices, mentoring, coaching, implementation PLCs, and ongoing feedback and evaluation. Establishing a support system and learning community provides instructors with the tools to teach in a non-traditional setting where a focus on isolation is counterproductive to teacher knowledge and student success.


[1] Joyce, B. and Showers, B. Student achievement through staff development: Fundamentals of school renewal. Longman Press, New York, 1995.

[2] DuFour, R. What is a professional learning community? Educational Leadership 61, 8 (2004), 6-11.

[3] Schon, D. The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Basic Books, New York, 1983.

About the Author

Katura M. Lesane is an Associate Online Professor in the Education Department at Ashford University. Since 1993, her teaching experiences have included K-12 instructor, Instructional Coach, Assistant Principal, Assistant Professor of English, and online instructor.

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